North Korea is officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or the DPRK. The name Korea is derived from a Chinese name for Goryeo, which was the Korean dynasty that united the peninsula in the tenth century A.D. The North Korean name, “Choson” means “Land of the Morning Calm.”
North Korea is located in East Asia. It occupies the northern half of the Korean peninsula and borders the Korea Bay and the Sea of Japan. Its land neighbors are China to the north and South Korea to the south. It also shares a small border along the Tumen River with Russia to the northeast.
Korea was an independent kingdom for much of its long history. Korea was occupied by Japan in 1905. The Japanese formally annexed the entire peninsula following the Russo-Japanese war in 1910. After World War II, Korea was split in two. The northern portion, belonging to the Soviet sponsored, communist controlled regime was created, and the southern (US backed) portion, known as the Republic of Korea was also formed. Talks regarding reunification failed, and from 1950-1953, the Korean War ensued and North Korea failed to conquer the south. Although a cease fire agreement was signed, no peace treaty was ever adopted. It was at this time, under the direction of its founder, President Kim Il-Sung, that a policy was adopted of economic self-reliance, also known as “Juche.” The country calls itself a self-reliant, socialist country although many say it is simply a totalitarian dictatorship.
Kim Il Sung is considered to be the eternal leader of North Korea. North Korea bases its calendar on Kim Il-Sung’s birthdate which was April 15, 1912. The year today is not 2016 but 104. Although the north holds an election every five years, there is only one option and Kim Il-Sung’s heirs have taken the reins, keeping the power in the family. Kim Jong Un took over as head of state in 2011, after his father Kim Jong Il’s passing, and remains in power today. He is called the Great Leader and worshiped as a God king. There is a recent documentary on an eye surgeon volunteer from Nepal gaining entry to North Korea to treat over 1000 patients, blind from cataracts and malnutrition. The patients, after the procedure, waited one by one for removal of the bandages from the doctor, which once removed, totally restored their vision. They immediately ran over to a portrait of the Great Leader and bowed down with thanks and exuberance to him for giving them back their sight.
North Korea has a military-first policy, known as “Songun.” North Korea has the greatest number of military service members of any other country; with a total of nearly 10,000,000 active reserve and paramilitary personnel. Its active duty army, of over 1,000,000, makes it the fourth largest in the world after China, the U.S. and India. North Korea also has nuclear capabilities. It seems every year, when the US and South Korea engage in military exercises off the coast, North Korea answers with missile launches. This year was no exception and with each year, there seems to be an escalation of this retaliation.
The border between North and South Korea is known as the Demilitarized Zone, or the DMZ. This is one of the most highly protected borders in the world. The area is 160 miles long and four miles wide and was established in 1953. Meetings between the parties are often held in this location. It is a dangerous place and no access is allowed without permission. There have been various incidents in and around the DMZ that have resulted in military and civilian casualties. It is rumored that several tunnels have been built as an invasion route to the south, for the North Koreans to use.
Generally speaking, there is no freedom of speech or freedom of religion in North Korea; basically freedom in nonexistent. Many human rights experts share grave concerns for the citizens of North Korea. There have been terrible famines, where hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have died from hunger. Even today, it is unclear what the true state of poverty really is there. North Korea is often called a “Hermit” society, as it is a closed society to the rest of the world. North Korea, along with its culture, history and society, is hidden behind iron curtains. It is hard to get any good information. The information we do get is, unfortunately, dark in nature. They evidently have four government owned TV stations and 11 broadcasting stations, which is the most significant source of information for the average North Korean citizen. The government prohibits listening to (and jams) any foreign broadcasts from its citizens and also will allow no internet access. Very recently, a young, American student visiting there was given a 15 year sentence for trying to take a North Korean government, propaganda poster back to the US for a church friend. North Korea is indeed a “Hermit” society.
To keep a society so loyal to its leaders, it must use tactics that the rest of the contemporary world might find difficult to understand. If a person gets in trouble, they are sent to a prison camp, along with two other generations of their family. It is estimated about 200,000 people are in these camps, where the prisoners are forced into slave labor and food is scarce. It is believed that many live on corn and kimchi, (a fermented cabbage or radish dish.)
Kimchi is listed as an UNESCO world cultural dish, which is considered to be the national dish of North Korea. Kimchi is usually made in jars and buried in the ground to keep it cool in summer and warm in winter. Also, the North Korean city of Kaesong, is listed as an UNESCO, World Heritage Site. Kaesong features 12 sites within the city, which were established in the tenth century. The sites include a palace, a school and defensive walls. A recent discovery was made there when new, Koguryo tombs were uncovered in Pyongyang, (the capital city of North Korea.) This important discovery will shed light on the mysteries of ancient East Asia. It is believed the relics they found were created around the fifth century. Another site in North Korea is Mt. Myohyang, a biosphere reserve. It is a sacred site, believed to be the home of King Tangun, the forefather of the Korean people. Mt. Myohyang is a scenic, mountainous area with spectacular cliffs and rocks, which provide habitat for 30 endemic plant species and 12 animal species that are endangered. A variety of medicinal plants also grow there.
Education in the DPRK is universal and state funded. The North Koreans report that the literacy rate is 100 percent, as this was mandate of the founding leader. Healthcare and housing are also provided by the state. Most North Koreans live in apartments, with occasional electricity. Generally speaking, the government decides where the people will work and live. Once the government has assigned a place to work and live, it is difficult to change. Even though people have a job, many will try to find a way of earning a living on their own. Joining the military is mandatory for all boys and some girls. Bribery is said to be common. The people who are privileged to live in the capital city of Pyongyang, are the elite who are trustworthy, loyal and healthy. Life in Pyongyang is said to be very different from the rest of North Korea. It is reported that half of the population (that is 50%) lives in extreme poverty, where access to basic human needs are not met.
As we look into the cuisine of North Korea, one has to remember, it only recently (after World War II) that the country was divided. The people from the north and south share many common dishes. The main difference between the two, is that North Korean cuisine, is not as spicy as its neighbor to the south. Different regions have different local specialties, based on agriculture and climate. The staples are corn, rice and kimchi. Noodles, of all varieties, vegetables and legumes are common as well, and served in a broth, sometimes with meat. Dog meat is called sweet meat in North Korea and considered a delicacy. (Sweet meat is eaten far less often than once thought.) Beef, chicken and pork are meats used in many dishes, especially for special occasions. Kimchi is served at every meal. Condiments include fermented pastes, like a red pepper paste and a soybean paste. Other condiments are red and black pepper, mustard, garlic, onion, ginger and scallions. Fish and shellfish are readily enjoyed, especially in and around the cities along the coast. Baby shrimp are used as a seasoning agent and raw oysters and other seafood often enhance the flavor of kimchi. Many types of fish are preserved with dehydration.
So let’s enjoy a North Korean meal:
Mandu (Large Dumplings stuffed with Pork, Beef and Kimchi)
Naengmyun (Cold Buckwheat Noodles in Broth)
Bindaetteok (Mung Bean Pancake)
We set the table with the colors of the North Korean flag; red, white and blue. The North Korean flag was officially adopted on September 9, 1948. The two blue stripes, signify sovereignty, peace and friendship. The white stripes, signify purity and the red represents the Communist revolution, with the red star recognized as the symbol of Communism. Magnolias were strewn about the table to represent the national flower of North Korea.
We began with a toast of soju, which is a rice wine, very popular there. We said, “Gun-bae” which means “Cheers” in Korean. Our first course was called mandu or mandoo; a giant sized dumpling made of pork, beef and kimchi. Sometimes it is stuffed with pheasant but usually, just kimchi. This dumpling originated from the area of Pyongyang and is giant sized to represent a king’s portion. This North Korean specialty is delicious and was a wonderful way to begin our North Korean meal.
Our next dish was called Naengmynun, pronounced (nang-myun), which literally translates to “cold noodles.” (Know that I spent quite some time at the Asian market getting schooled on the proper Korean pronunciation.) We loved this unique dish and it would be especially refreshing on a hot summer day. The noodles were almost black in color as they were made from buckwheat. The broth was savory and of course, served with the ubiquitous, kimchi. The combination of flavors, with the cucumber, Asian pear and egg, was superb.
Our next course (and last course) originates from the Pyongan province, called Bindaetteok. This dish was made from mung beans, which when blended, makes the base or batter for the pancake. Kimchi is added, along with bean sprouts, onions and pork belly meat. This, “crispy on the outside” pancake, dipped in the soy-based sauce, was excellent. I can easily imagine that this pancake made with many combinations of ingredients, including seafood, and would be a great way to use one’s leftovers. This is a dish that can be enjoyed as a snack (or a meal) at any time of day. Desserts are not commonly served.
After our meal, we went to shoot some hoops, as basketball is a loved sport in North Korea but with some unique rules. They allow four pointers, (which is a three pointer that doesn’t hit the rim) and they also deduct points for missed free throws.
As we say goodbye to North Korea, we do so hoping that the division between the north and south is one day, soon, peacefully rectified. We hope that North Korea will find its way to be a more open society, so that the rest of the world can learn more about the people of North Korea and their wonderful cuisine. We pray families that were separated during war, can be reunited (which is only very sporadically allowed) and that aide can get to people who most need it. The North Koreans have had so many sanctions put into place by the rest of the world (as punishment for its testing of missiles) that it has suffered greatly in obtaining necessary resources. It is hard to imagine what life is like behind an iron curtain for the average North Korean, especially today when we are all so much more connected as humankind. So we send our many wishes for the prosperity of the people of North Korea.
I am curious have you ever had a cold noodle dish North Korean or otherwise?
Until next week,
While in Japan in the early 60's, I was stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base for two years. When on leave, a group of us enjoyed trying local dish's from food stands. We spoke very little Japanese, and the locals spoke almost no English. There were bowls of ingredients or pictures of various dish's displayed in front of the stands. We would point at a dish to order it. If we didn't like it we would throw it away and order another. Most were in the range of 60 to 150 Yen, which was equivalent to 360 Yen to $1.00 American. It was a very cheap way to eat, and quite an adventure. There were some noodle dish's that were served cold, some tasty and some not so much. I still enjoy cold buckwheat noodles in broth and left over spaghetti cold from the frig.
Darlene at International Cuisine
Thanks for your service and for sharing such a cool story. Someday, I would love to make a trip around the world on a street food journey. Who knows maybe that will be next. I am always thankful when there are pictures of the food on signs in places where their is a language barrier. Although sometimes what you get, and the picture can be quite different. P.S We loved the cold buckwheat noodles in broth, yummy!